My parents moved back to Korea 5 years ago. They live now with my grandparents (on my dad’s side) on a farm in a dinky little down called Chuncheon that has nothing going for itself besides maybe the fact that it now boasts a subway stop leading to the capital city. So now people don’t have to move out of that town for good.
Anyway, my grandfather has something like Alzheimer’s disease. His debilitating stroke a few years back left him with such a compromised memory function that he can remember my name and not much else. Not being able to remember can be lonely. So when I go back home for vacations, and when my mom sees me doing nothing, she cuts up some fruit, puts it on a table and tells me go eat some fruit with my grandfather.
I sit there, talk about myself, eat some fruit. Silence for maybe 5 minutes, whereby my grandfather has forgot everything I just said. So I say it again, eat some fruit, and if I feel especially loving that day, maybe ask him a few questions about his life. He’ll mutter something – but nothing I don’t already know. I return the plates to my mom, and I ask myself, ‘what was the point of that?’ Nothing happened.
“When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.” (Job 2:11-13).
In ‘Salvation and Healing; why medicine needs the church,’ Hauerwas talks about the idea of presence, and how we have so little of it, both in medicine and the church. Consider Job’s friends, he says. You may think whatever you want about their well-meaning but vacuous consolations, but at least they stayed with Job for 7 days. And no one said a word.
That’s exactly what makes people uncomfortable. Everybody loves to help – everybody shows up when they have a chance to be a hero, no matter how small that heroism may be. But how many are willing to be present when not just the helped are helpless, but they are as well? Will you show up, even when there’s nothing you can actually do?
So then we return to my grandfather. Medically, the doctors have done everything in their power to fix him up, but where’s the healing? If what Wendell Berry says is true, then disease is not just the presence of a pathological condition; disease is fundamentally alienation – alienation from our bodies (we are no longer ourselves), alienation from other people (people don’t like to be around other people that might get them sick, or worse, remind them of their own mortality), and alienation from God (as in, Oh God, I’m sick as hell, where are you?).
If that is true, than healing is much more than what modern medicine is. If that is true, modern medicine is not only ‘missing the point,’ but predicated on an illusion, operating in a universe that lacks real moral meaning (which one can say is a universe that doesn’t exist). My grandfather can walk, talk, and live in ways he couldn’t in the days immediately following the stroke – and at that point modern medicine waves its banners high and declares success!, but I am left with a feeling that that is not all there is…
In the world of medical technology, the illusion of control prevails, and with that, the urge to fix. What if all of the medical shindig is but a cloud that blinds us from seeing the truth, which is simply that we belong to each other? And what if the greatest thing we could do (physicians and others) for sick people was simply to be present with them, rather than suggest a million cures for their physical and psychological condition. It’s hard to sit still when there’s all these toys we could tinker with.
In the end, though, being present is what we will all have to do. Because some day my grandfather will die. So will I. In death, we can do little but to hold the hands of the dying, and then, we no longer wear the masks of power, but become who we were meant to be: the recipients of a beautiful gift that we neither understand, or control.